We live in a complex, ever changing world. Thanks to our networked, global society, small players can have huge impacts in geo-politics and world business. Unfortunately, most organizations aren’t structured in a way to thrive or even survive in this new, fluid environment. My guest today experienced this firsthand as he worked with General Stanley McChrystal in Iraq during the war against Al Qaeda. His name is Chris Fussell and in his latest book, One Mission: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams, he shares the tactics and tools that the military used in Iraq to transform themselves into a more agile organization.
Today on the show, Chris and I discuss why traditional top-down leadership organizations aren’t effective today either in the world of military or business, and how civilian organizations can apply the lessons he learned during combat. We discuss the legacy of John Boyd’s OODA Loop philosophy and how McChrystal took that idea and scaled it to the large and often bureaucratic armed forces. Chris then delves into how to develop a sense of “shared consciousness” in an organization and how to empower subordinates to make decisions to move a goal forward without having to ask for permission from a superior. We then discuss why complete decentralization isn’t a cure-all and why it’s important to have the structure of top-down leadership.
Whether you’re a corporate manager, business owner, or a leader in a non-profit, you’re going to walk away with some actionable advice to make your organization better.
- Chris’s background in the military and how he ended up writing a book about leadership
- How the military’s old-school bureaucracy hindered leadership from being effective
- The way that modern technologies and network thinking disrupted old organizational models
- How John Boyd’s OODA Loop applies to modern warfare
- How people reacted when the military’s traditional hierarchy began to change to a more distributed system
- How the hybrid model of organizing applies to non-military entities
- Balancing long- and short-term planning
- How to build a distributed, effective team
- What “shared consciousness” is, and why it’s so important for your team
- Why small cell terror groups are so effective
- The importance of being able to quickly adapt
- How to organize and run an effective meeting or briefing
- Giving team members a balance of autonomy and constraints
- Working with third-party people and companies in this mission-oriented environment
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Team of Teams — the book that Chris co-wrote with General McChrystal
- The Tao of Boyd: How to Master the OODA Loop
- My podcast with Robert Coram about John Boyd and the OODA Loop
- United Airlines’ massive PR failure
- How to Run an Effective Meeting
- Become a Self-Starter
Connect With Chris Fussell
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. We live in a complex, ever-changing world thanks to our network global society, small players can have a huge impact in geopolitics and world business. Unfortunately, most organizations aren’t structured in a way to thrive, or even survive in this new fluid environment. My guest today experienced this firsthand as he worked with general Stanley McChrystal in Iraq during the war against Al-Qaeda His name is Chris Fussell, and his latest book, One Mission: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams, Chris shares the tactics and tools that the military used in Iraq to transform themselves into a more agile organization.
Today on the show, Chris and I discuss why traditional top down leadership organizations aren’t effective today either in the world of military or business and how civilian organizations can apply the lessons he learned during combat. We discuss the legacy of John Boyd’s OODA loop philosophy and how McChrystal took that idea and scaled it to the large and often bureaucratic armed forces and then Chris delves into how to develop a sense of shared consciousness in your organization and how to empower subordinates to make decisions to move a goal forward without having to ask for permission from a superior.
We then discuss why complete decentralization isn’t a cure all and why it’s important to have the structure of a top down leadership hierarchy. Whether you’re corporate manger, business owner or leader in a nonprofit, you’re going to walk away with some actual advice to make your organization better. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/fussell. That’s F-U-S-S-E-L-L.
Chris Fussell, welcome to the show.
Chris Fussell: Hey, thanks, appreciate you having me on. Looking forward to the discussion here.
Brett McKay: You got a new book out, One Mission: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams, the follow-up to the book that you wrote with General Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams. Before we get into the idea of Team of Teams and One Mission, I think a little bit about your background would be helpful because it will explain a lot of what’s going on here, so can you walk us through your background and what guided you to the point that you’re writing a book called, One Mission and Team of Teams.
Chris Fussell: Sure. I’ll try to start where it gets relevant. In the late 90s, I graduated college in 1996 and went into the Navy after that and directly into the SEAL pipeline, so started SEAL basic training, the BUD/S program in ’97 and then in ’98, I joined the SEAL teams on the east coast, the U.S. and Virginia. Spent the next 15 years in that community, inside the special operations world, specifically in the SEAL teams that entire time, but working with a board swath of other services and then interagency partners until 2012 when I left active duty.
Obviously, in the years after 2001, the world has changed dramatically and the military had to adjust the way it did operations overseas, as a result of this new type of conflict that we find ourselves in battle inside of and the special operations community was in a very interesting and complex part of this global fight. I’m sure your listeners are all well aware of how dramatically those communities have changed in the last 15 years or so and so I had the unique optic to be involved at multiple levels in that change process, first as a junior officer inside those communities in the years after 2001 and then rising up to mid-management positions at the operational level and then one year in my career I spent as then, three-star Lieutenant General McChrystal’s aid to camp. His last year of five years that he commanded a global task force specifically focused on counter terrorism.
In that year, we were basically full deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan for about a year straight and I was able to sit right next to General McChrystal and other senior leaders in that community and having experienced the change from the ground level, I was then able to witness the organizational processes as an observer to that staff, which was just a fascinating process for me to see behind the curtain and say, “Oh, this is how we’ve gotten so much better,” not at battlefield operations, we had amazing units on the ground that were just improving exponentially, but at the synchronization of this global enterprise. It was an amazing process behind that.
When I left service in 2012, I partnered with General McCyrstal who had created, what we called the McCyrstal Group and we had started doing work with industry, helping them consider similar changes in their global operating model. About four or five years ago, we started having this conversation, let’s work on a book that tries to capture these lessons, so that was the origins of Team of Teams. What we found was that as we started to dig into that subject, we realized there’s a lot here.
The first book, Team of Teams is very focused on the macro theory of the case. What has changed in the world and our thinking led us to some deep discussion in Team of Teams around the information age, the speed with which individuals can connect, share ideas, create actions, that’s increased the complexity in the world on orders of magnitude just in the last ten years of so. The argument we made in that initial book was that traditional systems aren’t capable to restrict bureaucracy of dealing with that level of speed and interconnectedness that now swarms us everywhere we look, so that was the idea of the first book.
When we finished that, we realized, there’s more to be said here. What are the processes that actually allowed the enterprise that McChrystal oversaw and other organizations that are going through this to change the way the operate, to react to this big change that we’re all dealing with? That’s what we focus on inside of One Mission and as we finished up Team of Teams, had a long conversation with McChrystal and he encouraged me, “Hey, you sat on the staff and observed this, you should write the next book from that optic,” as a person who was not in the senior leadership team, but watching how they did business. After that I had gone onto grad school and done some thesis work on how the systems were working and so that was the origins of One Mission. We’re pretty excited now that the two go in great compliment to each other. The theory of the case, the change we’re all dealing with and here’s a practicum on how you can actually implement this change model inside your organization.
Brett McKay: That’s awesome. For our listeners who aren’t familiar with the changes that the military went through, particularly the special operations part of the military, how did the military organize itself before these changes and how was the way they operated, why did it not work?
Chris Fussell: The military, in simple terms, is very much like any other big enterprise. It’s structured in a top down fashion and this is not to attack traditional hierarchical approach. There was a lot of strength inside of that system. Over the past 100 years or so, say in the industrial age, collectively many folks around the world have learned those systems and refined them to as near perfect state as one could hope. We’ve seen that in industry, we’ve seen that in governments, we’ve seen that in the military and that is all premised on the idea that I have enough subject matter experts that can read the environment, predict what is likely to happen and that can be predicting what products people will want, what the next election cycle will look like, what our enemy on the battlefield is most likely to do based on their supple chain, their leadership model, the terrain, et cetera. The underlying foundation of those systems is very similar and so, that’s the type of system that I came into.
Even inside the special operations, the operations that had gone on for years in that world were premised on predictability of the environment, so you could then say, “Okay, here’s what’s likely to happen. Here’s what’s just happened and what will occur next, therefore, here’s the unit we’re going to use to address that issue.” They will go out, they will execute an operation, they will come back with new intelligence and then we will decide what we do next. What we found in the early years of the conflict in Iraq was that the technology age, which was created in an entirely different space than what we found on the battle field, but the threats that we were facing there, were leveraging what we now consider just common place, realities of the information age. You can connect with people very quickly over email and cell phones and now you can create mass amounts of followers on Twitter. There’s countless things that you can do in the information age to connect individuals around ideas that simply didn’t exist when the models that we had come to be so comfortable with were developed.
This 20th century traditional top down model versus a massively distributed problem set, the two don’t marry up very well and I would argue what most organizations and what we were feeling in the military was, the distributed model, think of it as a mass flash mob. It’s not going to necessarily bet or destroy this big traditional system, but it will bite away at it in so many different parts all at once, that eventually the big system just can collapse under its own weight. What we found on the battlefield was, Al-Qaeda being our first understanding of these distributed networks. They didn’t have some massive, great plan that they were going to put in place, they were going to replace system with sheer chaos and introduce some very deliberate ideology into that vacuum, but that’s not what they were worried about. They weren’t trying to create a nation state to replace the old system, they are intent on creating chaos into which you can then inject whatever idea set you want to. That was the tension in the fight that we found at a systems level. We have a model built on premises that no longer exist facing a network threat that has no rules. It exists on a narrative that’s strong enough to pull in followers and it can grow exponentially in a very short order.
Brett McKay: I guess we’re seeing that in full force recently in Europe with all these terrorist attacks that just come out of nowhere. There’s no hierarchy, it’s just networks, people who are keyed into that narrative and they decide to do something with that narrative.
Chris Fussell: That’s right. There’s a really interesting part to all of this, which is, what is it that makes networks, in any space, in the way a nation runs itself, in the way a military functions, in the way a group like this is put together, that networks that have this really powerful narrative, that is very attractive to people. That’s not a judgment on whether it’s good or bad. You might think it’s an evil narrative, but it doesn’t really matter what you think, it matters what people are willing to become part of that, think and if you connect with enough of a followership and like we’re seeing in Europe and other parts of the world, folks will flood from pockets all around the globe now to be part of something they think has great meaning.
That’s why the idea of fighting an information age war or the information campaign, that’s not new, but we’re seeing it … It’s just a very, very intense part of the struggle right now. Until the story catches up with the realities on the ground, we’re always going to be one step behind these things because they do tell a very powerful narrative to those that wish to be part of them. We saw the first stages of that in Iraq in the early days and now it’s just continued to grow over the last 10 or 12 years.
Brett McKay: As I was reading your book, the ideas, it made me think about John Boyd’s OODA loop and how what he was writing 50 years ago, we’re starting to see manifest itself today with these network terrorist cells and how … He said, this is how we need to respond. He was probably talking about guerrilla fighters and Vietnam, who acted very similar. He said, in order to combat them we needed to change the way we operated on the military level, so he implemented this idea of the OODA loop. It often gets simplified, but it’s very complex, where it’s all about just constantly taking information and making decisions rapidly on that information so that you can combat the enemy.
Chris Fussell: Boyd’s got an interesting history inside the Air Force. Was never promoted up to very senior level because his ideas were contradictory to a lot of big systems thinking. This is how you structure a big enterprise and I think that there were probably folks that saw Boyd as too much of an outlier or a threat to traditional thinking, but he was a fighter pilot, so he started at the small level, which to your point, it often gets simplified down, but he was actually a big systems thinker. The OODA loop observe orient aside and act was his foundational argument that said, “If you can get an individual in a fighter jet to do those things in sequence faster than the person in the enemy fighter jet, they will win in a dog fight. They can observe the situation, orient themselves, their thinking and their aircraft to it, make a decision about what they’re going to do next and take action. The tighter you can make that loop, which is dependent on all sorts of outside variables and their ability to triage very quickly, then they will shoot down the other fighter.” Makes total sense, if you think of a Top Gun scenario, two airplanes dog fighting, which doesn’t really happen in today’s air-to-air conflict anymore, just based on weapons systems, but it’s a logical, easy to understand concept. Scaling that up to the enterprise is where it gets really, really challenging.
It’s funny you mention Boyd because as we started to feel these changes inside the counter terrorism taskforce that McChrystal oversaw, people started to throw that language around to say, we’re speeding up the OODA loop of this global enterprise. This is thousands of people spread around the world, in multiple countries and every time zone, but acting as a unified whole to be able to reorient all the strength of that system against a very specific problem and make a decision, take an action within a matter of minutes sometimes, so the ability to do that was a whole new way of thinking. Sometimes, as we’re talking with industry leaders, I’ll often start there if they have some sort of background and understand of Boyd’s theories to say, look you can now scale this up to the enterprise level and really orient yourselves globally very quickly.
Brett McKay: What was the transition like from this top down, I think you call it dotted line hierarch structure, right? Where there’s a chain of command, where you get you orders from someone else and they get their orders from someone else and then to more of this distributed model. Talk a little more … It’s more of a hybrid model and we’ll talk about what that means, but what was the transition like? Were there a lot of people who dug their heels in, like no, I’m not comfortable with that, we’ve got to do it the way we’ve always done it or were people pretty open to that?
Chris Fussell: Yeah, in One Mission, we talk about the solid line, traditional hierarchy, coupled with dotted line, distributed networks. Anybody’s that’s worked in a big enterprise has stories or can talk directly to, we were structured this way, but to actually get business done with this division and this department, you had to go to this person and then that person, so what they’re doing is they’re describing the darker networks that exist inside of any enterprise, so that’s always existed. I think what McChrystal and the senior leadership started to realize was, how can we put a structure in place that identifies and leverages those networks because that’s where things happen really fast in a big enterprise. That’s were key relationships sit. That’s where interesting, unknown decision makers lay within the organization, so how can we couple those with the strength of the traditional solid line system? If we can bring those two things together, then we can have the stability, power, et cetera of a traditional system, which we don’t want to lose and move with the speed and distributed nature of these networks that we’re fighting.
Now, all that sounds great in hindsight. I think to your other question, what did that change process feel like? It was very organic. Very, let’s pursue what works and cast off what doesn’t work. There was not a master plan that was put down on paper and said, “Here’s where we are. Here’s how we’re structured. Here’s what the new threat looks like, therefore, here’s a 24 month change cycle that we’re going to go through.” A very traditional approach, because the problem was so new and the senior leadership that started to have this conversation, they just said, “Okay, what we’re doing now isn’t working. We’re pushing the traditional system as hard as it can possibly move and we’re still watching the threats grow, so we have to look for a new solution,” and very organically through broader and more inclusive communication processes, through a very conscious effort to decentralize decision making further and further down into the field, through a whole series of steps like that, where we ended up was, wow we’ve created this duel access system where we have traditional top down structure as a baseline and stability and we have the ability to move very quickly as a network model. Those two things couple together as this hybrid structure.
Had there been a master plan out of the gates because the thinking was so new, it probably would have gotten more push back than just organically navigating toward things that were working and throwing away those that weren’t. I don’t know, it’s a hypothetical, so it’s hard to judge, but I think there was a certain advantage to saying, “We’re all in this together. Let’s figure out what it looks like,” and where we ended up at was a very deliberate model that we found as repeatable in other spaces.
Brett McKay: That awesome. I can understand how this hybrid approach, where you have a structure solid line hierarchy, with this more distributed network model as well, how that would be great for the military and fighting the war on terror when you’re also fighting a networked enemy. Take this to the business. How does this apply to the business? Why should a business start looking to maybe transitioning to a hybrid model where it’s not just solid line hierarchy, but also a more networked organization?
Chris Fussell: It’s a great question and it’s interesting when I left the service in 2012, started having deeper conversations with folks in industry. That wasn’t that long ago, but this sort of thinking, I think was still new to a lot of folks in industry, in big government outside of the military, in big system like healthcare, et cetera, but now, I think we’re seeing … Just click on the news any day, we’re seeing such rapid change and traditional systems getting attacked by new players in almost every way, that people started to realize, okay, there is something going on that’s different than it was 20 years ago. This is not a battlefield or terrorism based problem, so the solution set, I think, speaks to the idea that, you’re traditional system … If you run a company that’s been around for 80 years and you’re doing really well, you’ve built a model that’s based on facing similar competitors, so if I want to compete in your space, I’m going to read your playbook, I’m going to look at your history, I’m going to try to build out a similar system, but with a more efficient model. I want better talent. I want to build a better widget, whatever we’re competing over and then I’m going to start to slowly eat up your market share.
I can come up with a very deliberate way to attack you and also become a big player and maybe one day, I’ll completely usurp you and I’ll buy you and now I’m the dominant player. We’ve all seen that work, so the focus is, how do I become more efficient? How do I optimize my system? How do I get the better talent? We’re competing directly with each other, now those systems are still very important because there are big competitors, but there’s also a totally different type of competition that doesn’t play by any of those rules.
The interconnected, external actors, startups that can scale overnight or don’t need to scale, they can just release a new technology that just disrupts the market that you’re in or a consumer base that can interconnect in a way and debunk a new product that you’ve released before it even hits the market. A consumer experience, where someone enters one of your stores or the recent United example just perfectly illustrates this, where you have a problem on an aircraft and a system that isn’t quite comfortable yet decentralizing all the way down to truly empowered folks at a gate that say, “This is escalating, we’re going to put more time or money right now here in the moment than we would have traditionally, but we’re going to solve this problem.” Instead, when we have to rely on a traditional approach, it can cost millions of dollars in shareholding in a very, very brief period of time if you’re not comfortable creating that decentralized model down to those that are closest to the problem.
The problems aren’t new. They’ve always existed. The issue is, these problems can now interconnect, be shared and drive thinking about your organization at a speed and at a scale that traditionally they simply couldn’t, so I would argue that the traditional systems really don’t have a chose. Organizations will not be run the same way they are now, in 20, 25 years, so we are in this transition point. I would argue this hybrid structure is one way to bridge through this transition, but those that are convinced that the 20th century model will continue to be the right solution as the information age gets more and more complex, I think it’s a pretty rough road to be on right now.
Brett McKay: The planning cycle is getting shorter and shorter. It used to be where you could plan for a year and then maybe a quarter and now maybe it’s just day-to-day or maybe hour-to-hour, you have to be able to make decisions that fast.
Chris Fussell: Yeah, I think so, but I think you have to be able to do both. There is long term planning where you want to know where you recruit from and you want to have a relationship with that graduate school or whatever the case may be. You want to have a good intern program that you get to look at people over multiple years, so those aren’t minute-to-minute decisions, those are deliberate relationships that are built over time.
In the military, you’re not minute-to-minute deciding what the next aircraft carrier’s going to look like, those are long time horizon programs and so, you don’t need some sort of distributed system that’s capable of dealing with sheer chaos, in a system like that, that you can control. I’m not saying it’s easy, you need a lot of smart people that know how to mange things very well, from people to money to communication plans, et cetera, but whether you like it or not, there’re also spaces that move in that minute-to-minute fashion and so, back to our experiences in the counter terrorism world, you couldn’t say, “Well, let’s just completely focus on empowering the teams on the ground so they can move minute-to-minute when they’re literally in the target environment and cast away the fact that we still have to come up with a training plan for next year or we still have to recruit people over a multi-year time horizon,” so those two things need to live in congruence with each other. The hard part though, is the fact that there are minute-to-minute things that can disrupt you, that’s just the realty now. Organizations need to have a system in place that’s capable of dealing with that, which is why you have to get comfortable living on these two axis at the same time.
Brett McKay: Let’s dig into a little bit how you developed the how to, the nuts and bolts of this Team of Teams approach and One Mission, you talk about the first step is developing or having a mission focus. Is that something like a corporate mission statement that people roll their eyes at or is it something else?
Chris Fussell: It’s interesting, we talk a lot about this idea of creating the right type of aligning narrative in One Mission. Yeah, everybody’s got the poster on the wall that says, “Be the best,” or whatever the case may be. Those are there for a good reason, but can become eye rollers and I’m sure the task force that I was part of under McCrystal had some version of that, that I was never aware of, or maybe I was, I just can’t recall at that point. The problem is they don’t really have enough meaning when it comes to connecting different parts of the organization and so, we lay out in One Mission is, our leadership started to change that from whatever bumper sticker narrative it might have been, to a story that really forced us at the low level to make a choice and what we had inside of our global task force was a cultural that’s not unlike you’ll see in big enterprise, where we had these incredibly capable, proud, very tribal verticals, so I was part of the SEAL teams, Army units had their versions of that. We had Air Force folks.
We had inter agency, like intelligence teams that became part of our task force and when you went far enough down onto the ground, each of those groups had a really strong, powerful grip on their members, which served us really well for a long time.
It means a lot to be part of the SEAL teams, obviously you go through many, many years of wickets to reach that level and the tribe speaks a certain language. It carries itself a certain way. It wears its hair a certain way. All those little nuances mean a lot when you’re in the system and when you look at another tribe that’s on the same big org chart on a wall, the way they carry themselves is a little different.
They wear their uniforms a little bit different. The language they use is slightly different, so there’s an immediate uncertainty about, are they really part of the same organization and all of us, we’re all human, so you’ll default back to your tribe and say, “This is where I’m comfortable,” and the problem we found that led to in a very interconnected fight were the threats have one common story that they’re just bolting people onto to create action and we find that we have little different nuances between our organizations that can lead to massive separation when it actually comes to trying to fight this interconnected network, so what the narrative that our senior leadership started to talk to us about was at a very high cultural level saying, “Look we are not coming together as a holistic organization. We do not trust each other between tribes.
We do not have genuine cross boundary relationships that allow one unit to pick up a phone to another unit and say, here’s what I think is going on and you listen to them as if they were part of your own team that you trust and believe their optic on the fight as much as you would believe somebody in your own tribe.”
Until we get to that level as an organization, we will not be as interconnected as the threat we are facing and even though we are stronger and faster and better trained and better equipped, all these things, they will still stay one step ahead of us. That level of powerful narrative, that’s not a bumper sticker all the wall, that’s a call to action that says, “You can stay comfortable inside of your tribe or you can become part of this larger story that’s going to truly pull us together as a one mission focus type organization, then we win, so the choice is up to you. Every single day, you’re going to have to decide, do I want to stay comfortable in my tribe or do I want to be part of a culture that has the potential to win in this environment.”
That didn’t happen overnight, that was a consistent conversation that went on for weeks, months and just became the DNA of the organization, but for me personally coming up through that system, that was the most powerful part of what our leaders did for us, was forcing us to truly think about which hand we wanted to play. Do I want to be comfortable in my tribe or do I want to get uncomfortable and try to be part of this bigger thing?
Brett McKay: The part of developing that One Mission, Team of Teams approach, is this idea of shared consciousness where everyone’s on the same page, so the idea of shared consciousness is basically, everyone has that one mission focus no matter what team they’re on, what tribe they’re part of, but also there’s a shared consciousness of the information that’s available there and how it affects all the organizations, right? Maybe the SEALs have some bit of information that might be useful to another organization. I think people understand on the macro level, but how do you do that? How do you get that shared consciousness going across organizations so that people are all on the same page?
Chris Fussell: Shared conscious is one of those things that most people have experienced, if you’ve been in startup, if you’ve been on a high performance sports team, anytime you’ve been in an environment where there’s six of us, or 12 of us, or 20 of us and we all connect emotionally and we all are close enough in physical proximity or we resynchronize ourselves at a fast enough pace that I can understand what you’re thinking, you can understand what I think. That’s your conscious, most people have felt that at some point, but they’ll describe … I would describe a SEAL platoon. You might describe a startup that you were a part of or a sports team you were on. How do you scale that up to the enterprise level become the big debate and I remember our senior leadership when we were going through this transition saying, “Our core strength is our small teams, our ranger platoons on the ground that just move with complete fluidity. Is it possible to scale that up to this global enterprise level? If we can do that, no one can keep up with us,” but it seemed like a pretty big challenge.
Very organically, what became the backbone of creating that structure was increased periodicity, so the speed with which we resynchronized ourselves went up exponentially and then the amounts of personnel involved in those resynchronizing communication structures also went up. We started to ask the question, “How fast is the threat externally changing and can we realign ourselves to marry up with that pace?” Now, there’s a whole history to how we got there, but essentially the take away was, these networks Al-Qaeda and networks like this, there’s something different every morning. When they wake up and look around and say, “What are we going to do today?” They redesign who’s talking to who and what they’re going to execute in the next 24 hours, so that’s the cycle that we needed to keep up with. This was happening multiple layers above where I was in the organization at that point, but that’s the conversations that they started to drive.
Then they back up and said, “Okay, if that’s 24 hours, how do we resynchronize ourselves every 24 hours in order to be able to keep up with that pace?” We, overtime, started to look at the battlefield and these 24 hour cycles. The first 90 minutes of that cycle, which started with a global video teleconference and in time that grew to thousands of people around the world sitting in this one common forum every 24 hours, seven days a week for years on end, developing this sense of shared consciousness and it wasn’t a top down, here’s what you’re going to do today, it wasn’t a mid-management, let me update everybody on what’s going on, it was a 90 minute discussion about how people were seeing the problem. What was the new data? What teams had gone out into the fight and learned something new? Very raw and honest discussions about what was actually happening inside the problem.
Then, you could go into these windows of decentralization, so you’d have thousands of people that would walk out with that same sense that you and I might have, it’s a three or four person startup after our morning cup of coffee and we say, “Okay, let’s go get them.” Same thing was happening, but with thousands of people around the globe, so then we would go into 22 hours of truly decentralized operations, where you could push responsibility deep down into the units that were on the ground and then 22 and a half hours later, they resynchronize and we’d have the same conversation. No single day was ever perfect, but over time you marry all these things up and you truly created this global enterprise with a sense of shared consciousness that you would find inside a 12 person platoon, for example.
Brett McKay: The regular 90 minute meeting, I think people hear that and I think you mentioned, it’s not like a management update meeting, right, here’s what’s going on, it’s something different. Say someone had a business and they want to incorporate this cross communication amongst different organizations within the company or their own business if they have one, what’s the agenda? How do you start that meeting? Is it just, you have a topic? What are the mechanics of that?
Chris Fussell: It’s a great question. The temptation is to say, “Okay, got it. Let’s do that on Monday and we’ll get 500 regional managers onto a call and we’ll just start talking about stuff.” Of course, we know where that’s going to go, it’s just going to turn into totally chaos. When we’re doing work with organizations, we will start with what we did very organically inside the task force underneath McChrystal, which was starting with a conversion about what are we trying to accomplish? What’s our strategic intent as an organization? That quickly lead to us and what you’ll see in large organizations is, there’s actually multiple different fights going on here. We’re not on the same page about what our strategic intend is and how we’re going to get there. That’s this place, I would say, for any organization to start. Get the leadership together, really determine what’s our strategy? What are we trying to accomplish? Cascade that down into your verticals, your regions, however you’re structured. That will change over time, but you have to get some sort of common baseline, then from that, you can start to look at the speed with which the problems are moving.
You probably have a traditional system that capable of moving in that linear fashion versus big traditional competition. What are the other problems and how fast are they changing? To deal with those in a decentralized fashion, how often do you have to resynchronize? You start with those two ideas; what are we trying to accomplish, how often do we have realign to be able to do it in a decentralized manner? Then you can get into the creation of this communication model based on those former two and the agenda itself will be informed by the first work you do, which is, what are you trying to accomplish?
Then you can grow these things steadily over time. If the goal is to have 500 regional managers involved in something like this, start with ten, then make it 30, then grow in time to that large number, because you want people to show up and every time they come into a forum like this say, “I’m a busy person, but that’s the best hour I spend during the week or that’s the best two hours I spend every other week because I walk away with a real understanding of how the leaders throughout the organization are looking at the problem and I’m very comfortable now, operating in a decentralized fashion until we resynchronize.” It’s a driver of human behavior as much as anything.
Now for us, the structure of it was important. There had to be a solid backbone. We had a very consistent agenda that was, consistent as much that, we always had one, it was very structured, 90 minutes, we knew ahead of time who was going to talk about what for how much time, et cetera. If you went to our portal system, that was the first thing you’d see on homepage was the agenda for the next cycle, so very transparent there. What was being talked about would change over time based on what was going on in the fight, but people needed that baseline to say, “Okay, here’s what we’re going to talk about. I understand how the senior leaders are seeing the fight based on the type of agenda they’re structuring,” then we would use a controller and we highly recommend this to any organization. Train and develop an individual or team, depending on the size of the enterprise that is responsible for making sure that a forum like this runs smoothly. Working with the IT backbone, making sure that briefers are prepared, coaching them along to like, here’s the type of conversations we try to have, keeping the schedule running on time, taking taskers and follow-ups you can push things that need to go into a sidebar discussion, you can follow-up on those.
There’s a whole bunch of tricks that you want to do in that space to keep it nicely controlled and functioning and then we would use a technology backdrop as well. Our technology then was pretty rudimentary compare to what is available now. If we had thousands of people on the net, a good majority of them would have a device open. You’d be on your classified laptop and you’d have a serious of chat rooms going during this forum, so that in the conversation itself, there’s these point-to-point conversations going on with other people contributing additional information based on the conversation. You didn’t want that to turn into totally chaos. In the backdrop, you would have 10, 12, maybe more individual or big party chat rooms going on your laptop, so as you’re briefing some new insight that you’ve discovered in one corner of the world, I can reach out to dozens of contacts and say, “Hey, that’s really interesting what they’re talking about right now, have you seen that report? What do you know about that new piece of equipment they’re describing et cetera, et cetera.” It’s not a constant interruption in chaos, the chaos can happen in the backdrop, so that gave us the opportunity to create those new dotted line networks every single time we resynchronized.
You created the best possible opportunity for the right people to connect to say, “Oh wow, I didn’t know that, we can created a sub network very quickly that’s going to solve for that issue,” or “I’m going to do something very differently in the next 22 hours based on what that person just said,” and that’s why so many people were drawn to be part of something like that. If we have thousands of people on that net, most of that was organic growth. Most of that was people deciding, I want to be in this forum because it gives me the opportunity to create my own sub networks every 24 hours and tackle the issues we’re facing in a new way.
Brett McKay: As I was reading the mechanics of it, if I was thinking Slack could be a tool for a small company who doesn’t have the infrastructure or IT infrastructure to build their own platform, but I think it’s essential that you have a main channel where everyone’s getting the same updates, but then we can go off into little channels on your own and discuss things about the main channel.
Chris Fussell: Exactly right. This technology, there’s no barrier of entry for anyone. You can get freeware as a startup between Slack and other systems that are out there and quickly create this sort of structure, but we use Slack in our own organization. It’s a much pretty version of what we were using at time, which looked basically like MD Dos chat rooms, but coupling those two things together I think today is critical.
Brett McKay: The hybrid approach, the benefit of it is, you have that solid line hierarchy where you can do some long term planning and make sure the things that require long term planning and logistics get done, but you also have this networked approach, but this networked approach gives on the ground subordinates a lot of autonomy to make quick decisions for themselves based on information they’ve gotten from this shared consciousness that was received from these updates or this communication that they’re using. How do you ensure that these autonomous individuals don’t deviate to far from the mission focus with their decisions? It’s one thing to be like, hey get out there and just do it, but they might do something really stupid that hurts the mission.
Chris Fussell: Yes, they might. What’s interesting is, I remember as a junior officer in these communities when my own naïve view on things at the time was, they’re going to decentralize and empower and we’re going to be flat and basically, what you just described, this will be up to me and our team and we’ll just go for it and we come back every so often and tell them what we’re doing. That’s not how it works and in our environment and any high risk or big enterprise system, that can create way more risk than it’s worth if you just say, “Everybody go for it and then we’ll resynchronize,” you might be a very seasoned actor and I’m brand new. There’s no way I should be empowered or held to the same level of accountability that you should be.
What I’ll describe here, again, happens through organic conversations over time inside of our initial environment, but there’s a very deliberate approach that organizations can take to create this model if they start with that original discussion around strategy and cascading that down into measurable metrics within teams, which is an old management model, but very critical baseline that it can provide, so if you have that in place, you can then come down to me, you and one other person as, back to the regional sales manager model, if you’re six years in that position, the higher level leadership can say, “Here are the 20 things we’re going to empower you to do with at your level. Don’t come back in and check for permission. When we’re in these windows of decentralized action, you own all of that. Here are two or three things that I’m going to … Constraints that I’m going to put on top of you. Because we’re in a volatile market when it comes to joint ventures, if you’re talking to any of these three competitors, check in with headquarters because there’s new legal constraints if you’re encroaching into this environment, check in with leadership, everything else, up to you.” That makes a lot of sense to you. You’re probably, okay I’m a seasoned, experienced leader, I understand why I’m constrained, but I know where I’m expected to act with speed and independence.
If I’ve just be promoted up to regional sales manager, I might have three things that I can do at my level and 20 things that I’m constrained by and that list can get very, very detailed, which things like this happen in a lot of organizations. You have different sorts of actors, but when you took that sort of measured approach and you can do this in great detail inside an organization if you want to roll your sleeves up, you can literally map this out. Coupled with the inclusion and transparent nature of the communication forums that were put into place, you could literally see every single day as a new actor in the system. I understand my constraints, I understand my authorities, but every 24 hours, I’m getting a new opportunity to see somebody like you, a seasoned member of the organization talk and operate at a much higher level.
We might be peers on an org chart, but you have all these other authorities and I can see you leverage them. I can see the actions you take and more importantly, I can see how you tie your actions and new information that you might be finding back up into the strategic conversation, so as a new actor in that model, you’re probably, even if we’re on paper, peers, you’re thinking multiple levels above me and every day you’re unintentionally, you’re coaching me to become an actor like you. I see what right looks like. Most traditional bureaucracies, when that happens, it happens behind closed doors, so I see you as a competitor. I think the bosses just like you more and I don’t have time to sit down and you don’t have time to sit down and coach me along and you might be incentivized not to do that based on mired of things inside of an enterprise, but in a transparent system like this, I can just see it happening and the reverse was also true for us.
When a seasoned player could look across and see me as a new member of the organization who is highly constrained, you were also incentivized to reach across and coach me, literally picking up the phone and saying, “Here’s where you can improve. Here’s where you should be thinking about the following. If you want these sorts of authorities, here’s what our leadership needs to see from you,” that was not necessarily because you thought I was a great guy, but every time I pick up the phone to ask permission around one of those constraints that are layered on me, I’m preventing our senior leadership just because I’m eating up their time, from doing the up and out thinking that you want them to do. You don’t need permissions, you need new relationships with other organizations. You need new funding for a massive strategic project you’re focused on. I need permission to go from A to B, so you want me to either, figure out how to from A to B on my own, or just get out of the way, so you’re incentivized to come over and help coach me along to get there, so it also starts to act as a tool for breaking down those tribal barriers between different verticals, different regions, where normally there’s a sense of competition, now people can see, wow if I make that team better, it’s going to greatly benefit my team as well.
Brett McKay: You give a good example of this on the ground coaching, where you get a call from some other guy in another organization chewing you out, but he has coaching experience, but again, it takes a lot of consciousness, intentional deliberate work to make this approach work in an organization.
Chris Fussell: No, that right. What’s described in One Mission, I would say, there’s a whole series of basics in there, but coupling them together at a pace that keeps up with today’s environment, that’s the challenge because it’s not good enough anymore to come out and be really good once a quarter at the town hall or to be really good on your quarterly analyst report. You’ve got to be as good as you can be, every single day if you’re going to expect the organization to be able to move fast enough.
Brett McKay: You talk about this in the book, the military doesn’t just rely on organizations within the military, they also work with outside parties where they don’t have control over them, but they’re a vital part of the mission. I’m sure there’s a lot of businesses to that work with outside entities to further their mission and their business strategic goals, but they don’t have control over them. For example, my own business, I use a lot of independent contractors for video editing, whatever, how can you apply this Team of Teams approach with these outside third parties so you can work with them and maintain that rapid, operating tempo that you need to survive and thrive in today’s world?
Chris Fussell: A few things changed in the way that this task force was run by our senior leadership on that front that I think are applicable over to many other parts of industry. One being, people have to feel like they’re part of the team, I think especially so in today’s world. Even if I’m a contractor doing editing for you. I want to feel like I’m part of the mission that you’re accomplishing because that’s the sense that everybody … We’re so interconnected now that people are looking for the purpose behind any particular thing they’re doing. We tried to leverage that same sort of emotional connection with any outside entity, so people weren’t just welcome to work for us, or be attached to us, they were pulled in as part of the team.
I’ll give you an example from the SEAL community. Historically, you might deploy to a conflict zone, this is going back many years when I first came into that environment and you might have a young civilian intelligence expert from some outside entity, who based on his or her background or experience, they’re going to be part of your team and they’re going to advice on XYZ, so because of the tribalism, there was a biased, okay this is Karen and Karen, here’s your office over here down the hall and here’s the team room. Here’s where we eat and work out and you can use this gym down the road sort of thing. We appreciate what you bring to the table, here’s the meetings that you’re invited to, but we’re the team and you’re an additional capability. It’s sort of exaggerating it, but we’ve all felt that sort of pressure and we’re certainly part of the tribal nature of these teams.
What our leadership forced us to change toward and think through was, Karen needs to be part of this team and that doesn’t mean on paper she’s assigned to your unit for X number of months, it means, she’s in your headquarters. She knows how you think. She sits through all the meetings. She’s in your chow hall. She uses your workout facilities. She is integrated into how you operate as a culture and then her subject matter expertise will be able to be much more effectively leveraged inside of your thinking. She becomes part of OODA loop, so to speak, as we were talking about earlier, which if you’re trying to take a linear approach, where the tribe will think about it to this level, we hit this brick wall, then we call in Karen and she drops in this one amazing insight and then we solve the issue, that’s just completely unrealistic in today’s age. She needs to be part of that from step one, not just in the information sharing, but in the way that the culture interacts with one another in the way it see the problem, so that was one big part of it, internally to teams, pulling people in and really making them part of your tribe.
The other was external. As you talk about external partners, our leadership used the liaison model, which is not new in the military, a wholly different way. The idea of exchanging folks between different organizations goes far back in military history, but part of their function historically was just to make sure units didn’t run into each other and that next moves were aligned between different parts of the battlefield, those sorts of things.
There’s a pretty transactional position and you didn’t need to put a super high performer in to be able to do that. It could be a junior person. It could be a B player that didn’t have a home in the unit et cetera, but in the speed of the battlefield made that old model just totally ineffective, so our leadership started grabbing very seasoned folks from the battlefield that were clearly on a high performance track and were going to be senior leaders inside the organization in short order, where the units would be tempted, this is where I want to grab this person and put them in charge of this unit that’s in the toughest part of the fight.
They instead would drop their body armor and weapons, put on a suit and tie and go work in a civilian intelligence agency or work at an embassy or work in a nontraditional capacity under the title of liaison, but what they really were, was a senior enough and insightful enough individual that they connect directly with senior leadership in those other spaces and they were tethered directly into our senior leadership, so you had this amazing web of connectivity between our hybrid system and these other actors and they could run their organization however they saw fit, but when what we were doing needed to get to those other enterprises with network level speed, you had all these positions embedded inside of them that could quickly walk into the offices of the most senior leaders and say, “Sir or ma’am, here’s exactly what you need to understand right now. Here’s what we’re doing to handle the situation. We’d like your guidance, input et cetera. I can get you on a phone call right now with our senior leadership. We’re going to have a video teleconference on this in ten minutes, you’re invited to sit through and guide it from your direction,” they felt like they were truly part of that enterprise based on the connectivity that those liaisons provided and I think you can do similar sorts of models in industry.
We’ve done it inside of global enterprises, establishing these sorts of positions between global regions, et cetera, or if you’re working with outside actors. Here’s a joint venture partner or even a frenemy in a space, we have to start exchanging people so we really understand how each other is seeing the market so that we can best leverage our collective strengths. I think it’s a very universal system.
Brett McKay: That’s awesome. Well, Chris, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?
Chris Fussell: The McChrystal Group, just hop on our website, see some of the work we do. One Mission is out, 13 June, so we’re excited about its release and hopefully be hearing more about that. If they want to understand the depth and background, you can start there and then go back to Team of Teams, or the other way around, but between the two of those, there’s a story about our experiences and how we think it applies to other spaces.
Brett McKay: Chris Fussell, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Chris Fussell: Thanks. I really appreciate it.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Chris Fussell. He’s the author of the book, One Mission. You can find that on amazon.com. You can also find more information about his work at mcchrystalgroup.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/fussell, where you can find links to resources were you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another addition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at, artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy this show, have got something out of it, I’d appreciate it if you give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: August 24, 2017